It’s Sunshine Week, but it has nothing to do with the star the Earth is orbiting. It’s a week focusing on how well officials do in letting citizens see what their government’s up to. Kathleen Richardson is executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “Open meetings and open records laws in Iowa are pretty simple compared to a lot of other states,” Richardson says. “But compared to states like Florida, for example, that was one of the leaders in this area, it’s always a constant struggle.” Richardson is fielding more and more calls from Iowans who are concerned that public comments at government meetings are being restricted. “They’re frustrated by that,” she says. “And there’s always constant issues involving citizens who feel that their elected officials are trying to skirt the open meetings law, for example, by discussing things outside of public meetings.” A bill under consideration at the statehouse seeks to clarify Iowa law and prevent two or three city council members getting together privately to decide city business, for example. Those kind of “unofficial” meetings are a problem, according to Richardson.”The bill that’s in the legislature is kind of an effort to attack what has become known as ‘walking quorums’ in which officials meet in groups that are smaller than a quorum in order to avoid the open meetings law and kind of discuss things before they actually go into public session,” Richardson says. “A lot of times they then just rubber stamp whatever it is that they’ve been discussing and it’s very frustrating for citizens who haven’t had a chance to be involved in the process.” Richardson also advises Iowans who are having difficulty getting their hands on a government document or report. She says you should become familiar with the law and your rights, and work with the official who is the custodian of the record. If that doesn’t work, speak with the city attorney or the county attorney. The state Ombudsman’s office in Des Moines now has a counselor who can mediate disputes over access to public records. For general information on openness rules in Iowa, you can visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s website — www.ifoic.org. The Iowa Attorney General’s website has a section on open meetings and open records laws, too.
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